Graham looked pleased with himself, if that was possible.

Jacob continued, “We need to conquer the south. Lynyrd Skynard, Allman Brothers, southern rock has a brilliant pull down here and we need to grab them before they get burnt out. And anyway, we deliver a nice little statement to the media tomorrow about the dead bird, it gives us free media exposure and a nice sense of mystique that the local kids will go nuts over. There’s always a way to turn that frown upside down and that’s what I’m here for. I’m the manager. I manage so we always come out on top.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The drive to Atlanta wasn’t very long and by the time nightfall rolled around, Bob had brought the bus into a small motel outside of the city. We were staying at an incredibly expensive hotel in Nashville, a splurge since we were playing two shows there, so our digs in Atlanta had to be inexpensive and there was no way anyone could tolerate being on the bus with each other any longer. After the whole vote, no one really seemed to be speaking and it was yet another awkward bus ride.

I was greatly looking forward to the fact that I had my own room. I didn’t care that the shag carpeting had a peculiar, sour smell or that the sink was filled with rust stains. I loved the fact that I could unpack my duffel bag and I had a door to close and buffer out the band.

I lolled around in the room, taking a luxurious shower (the shower on the bus officially had no hot water anymore), stretching out on the bed like a starfish, and reading snippets of the Carrie book I brought. When it was getting a bit too weird and spooky, I put it down and wrote a letter to Eric. I would have called, but the long distance rates on the crackly motel phone were exorbitant.

When that was all done, I tried to pen some music-oriented prose but my brain was coming up blank. Everything I wrote was wrought with purple doom like I was subconsciously more distraught over the situation than I let on. Everything was weighing on me heavily.

I closed my notebook with a sigh and lay my head on the itchy beige bedspread. It was only nine o’clock and too early to go to bed, but soon my eyes were closing like heavy curtains.

I wasn’t sure how long I had been asleep for, or if I even was, but my eyes snapped open to a weird metal sound emanating from the bathroom. To my utter surprise, the light in the motel room was out and I was engulfed in pitch blackness. The only light I had was coming from the bathroom door. It was closed and the light spilled under it like a garish sheet.

I held my breath, slowly propping myself up on my elbows. My mouth was dry. I tried to listen and think at the same time. How did the light go out? Did I leave the light on and close the door after I had my shower? It was plausible but it didn’t sit right; I was used to conserving electricity in my house and turning off lights was like second nature to me.

Clink.

There it was again. The sound of metal on porcelain, like someone had dropped a razor in the sink.

My heart nearly stopped at that, then slogged through my chest like it was stuck in mud.

I listened harder, ignoring the fright that was building steadily in my chest, my eyes watching the light under the door as if I expected to see a shadow appear at any moment. It seemed rational. When it never came, I gathered up the nerve to get off the bed. I blessed the muffling properties of the shag carpet and crept forward until I was at the bathroom door.

I held my breath again, willing my body to not have a heart attack. I put my head to the door, and as softly as possible, laid it upon the wood.

I heard nothing. I waited.

A click shot through the layers of wood to my ear.

The light from underneath the door switched off.

I was now in total blackness. And I wasn’t alone.

I had no time to think. I whirled around, ready to run out the door, when I was met with an immense front of frigid air that blew at my face and hair.

“Do you remember me now?” a calculating voice echoed in the cold, coming from right in front of me.

I let out a yelp, panic squeezing every bone in my body, and somehow managed to make it through the pitch black room to the door. My fingers slipped clumsily on the knob a few times before I managed to grasp it and fling the door open, feeling nothing but immense dread nipping at my heels, like a hand reaching for me in the dark.

I ran outside, sweat chilling on my skin. The motel was one level and L-shaped and I was at the more isolated end, surrounded by dark trees and a path to the small pool, the only thing that was really lit up.

I went straight there, wanting to be as far away from the room as I could be and around as much light as possible. From the pool you could see the clerk in the motel lobby and the trucks and cars roaring past on the distant highway giving a sense of safety and comfort; life was going on and sane people were out there.

Still, I scampered to the other side of the pool area so I was facing my door—which was wide open—and the rest of the motel and leaned against the white guard rail that went around the glowing aqua water. I sucked in my breath, trying to calm down.

This wasn’t a matter of hallucinating anymore. Someone had been in my room…someone was still in my room. Maybe I was confused and thought the voice was coming from another place, but the fact was that though I could blame the bedroom light going out due to a burnt-out bulb, it was too much of a coincidence for it to happen to the bathroom one. Besides, I heard it. I heard the click that happens when you flick off a light switch. Someone had turned it off. And they had done it mere inches from me. I had been a sitting duck.

Or something turned it off. I quickly dismissed my wayward thoughts. Dealing with a “someone” was bad enough. It could have been anyone, a hitchhiker or someone creepy coming in for the night. Maybe I had fallen into a deeper sleep than I thought and some pervert had broken in and had been in the bathroom getting ready for….

I shuddered. I had to get help before I drove myself insane, and was about to run over to the motel office when I noticed I wasn’t alone at the poolside.

Across from me there was the faint red glow of cigarette embers. Someone was sitting on the poolside chair smoking. I squinted at the shape, feeling panicky all over again, and saw eyeballs glinting, a reflection from the waving pool light. They were smoking and watching me.

“Hello?” I called out softly. “Who’s there?”

The shadowy figure barely moved and they certainly didn’t say anything. The cigarette glowed again. I peered at it, trying to block out the light from the pool and focus on the person. The more I stared, the more it began to resemble a woman. I saw long pale limbs stretched out on the vinyl chair, a white face, and long dark hair.

“Noelle?”

There was no response. Even though I felt extremely unsafe and needed to go tell the motel clerk what had happened, if it was Noelle sitting there in the dark, I couldn’t just leave her.

I slowly walked around to the pool gate and pushed it open with an eerie groan. I shot a look over to my room, still waiting for someone to walk out of it. I kept one eye on it and approached the smoking figure as one approaches a snake. I considered the burning cigarette a warning rattle, and she was coiled and ready to strike.

I was only a few feet away when my eyes adjusted and the light from the pool became clearer.

It was Noelle. I kneeled down beside her, nervously glancing between her and the open door. She was smoking as if she were on autopilot. Her eyes were dry and staring blankly forward. Her skin took on a greenish tone from the light.

“Noelle,” I whispered. “Are you okay?”

She didn’t answer. I looked back at the door and put my hand on her knee. It was clammy and cold to the touch.

“Noelle, we have to go. There was someone in my room just now, and I think they’re still there. I have to tell the motel clerk. Come on, it’s not safe to hang out here.”

I attempted to pull at her arm but she was rigid and unyielding.

“Please,” I said firmly.

She finally looked at me, her head turning my way like it was on creaky hinges. Her eyes glowed spookily as she appraised me.

“Do you think that’s going to help?” Her voice was as soft as the breeze ruffling her hair.

“What?”

She puffed deliberately on the cigarette.

“Noelle? Please.” I pulled on her a little more.

She laughed coldly.

“It’s too late. They’re here.”

A bead of sweat trickled at the back of my neck.

“Who is here?”

“I told you. The monsters. They’ve come for us all.”

My mouth went dry and I had to swallow a few times before I spoke. “Noelle, please, you’re scaring me. I’m already scared. Just come.”

She shook her head slightly.

“You go and tell whoever. They won’t find anything. They hide themselves too well. But they’re here. And soon they’ll be inside you. They’ll be inside me very soon. They want to take us all. We’re owed to them.”

Debt collector, Graham’s voice whispered inside my head. I suppressed a shiver.

“Please,” I tried again. My voice cracked. “You can tell me more later, Noelle, and I’ll believe you, I will, but you have to come with me.”

“I don’t care if you believe me,” she remarked flatly. “It’s already too late.”

I took in a deep breath, trying to figure out my next course of action. Noelle was obviously as high as a kite and talking nonsense. So why was she scaring me so much?

“I—,” I began to say but stopped when my heart went dead cold. Noelle’s expression was frozen in absolute horror, eyes wide, mouth open in a silent scream.

With fevered breath, I looked over my shoulder to see what was causing the terror on her face.

On the other side of the quiet road that went past the motel was a woman in white. She was staring at us, eyes black pits, white hair flowing in the breeze. It was Sonja.

But the more I looked at her, the more she wasn’t Sonja. She was almost a ghostly apparition, partly transparent, and leaking black fluid out of her mouth as she smiled.

I looked back at Noelle. Her expression hadn’t changed. She was stuck, a portrait of mind-numbing terror. A silent scream that never ended.

My eyes volleyed back to the woman in white.

She was no longer across the road.

She was standing on the curb that bordered the parking lot. The parking lot that sloped toward the pool. Just feet away.

Her eyes were bleeding black pools that promised a wealth of revulsion.

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move.

Then I heard Noelle, her voice bursting through like a siren.

She started screaming and thrashing on the lawn chair, her voice rising high into the air, a scream that personified all that everyone feared.

I put my hands on her shoulders, trying to calm her down and prevent her from hurting herself, and threw another glance over my shoulder, expecting to have to fight off Sonja as well.

But she wasn’t there. The road was empty. The darkness was all consuming.

Within seconds, the clerk came running out of the motel and the doors to various rooms opened. Suddenly everyone from Jacob to Mickey to random motel guests were gathered around, trying to figure out what was going on.

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